TOKYO — An angry backlash is brewing in New Zealand after it emerged Wednesday that Peter Thiel, the controversial Silicon Valley venture capitalist, was granted citizenship after only four visits to the country, and didn’t even travel there for his citizenship ceremony.
“This is all about money,” said Iain Lees-Galloway, the immigration spokesman for the main opposition Labour party. “And that is not acceptable in New Zealand. We pride ourselves on having an open and transparent system of government, so this situation feels very uncomfortable for most New Zealanders.”
While some Americans had voiced an interest in escaping to New Zealand, at the bottom of the Pacific and with six times as many sheep as people, if Donald Trump became president, Thiel doesn’t fit into that category. He was a prominent supporter of Trump’s candidacy and a member of his transition team.
Thiel, who was born in Germany and already holds German and American citizenship, applied for a New Zealand passport in 2011, several months after he donated just over $800,000 to an earthquake relief fund there.
New Zealand offers visas for investors and entrepreneurs that come with residency, and issues about 250 of these visas each year. But to apply for full citizenship, visa holders are supposed to meet a residency requirement: spending at least 70 percent of the preceding five years in New Zealand.
After several days of delays, New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs Wednesday released documents at 5 p.m. local time on the same day that the center-right government announced the date of the next general election, sparking allegations it had tried to bury the news.
They showed that Thiel did not meet this requirement and declared that he did not intend to live in New Zealand.
But Thiel submitted that his entrepreneurial and philanthropic skills made granting him citizenship a matter of public interest in New Zealand, according to a summary of his application released by the department, part of a 145-page file.
As well as co-founding PayPal and being the first outside investor in Facebook, Thiel had started a venture capital fund in New Zealand, investing $4 million in an online accounting company — a stake currently worth $110 million — and a fiber optic company.
“Mr Thiel has demonstrated his philanthropy through making a million dollar donation to the Christchurch earthquake relief fund,” the head of the department wrote in a summary of Thiel’s application. At the time, 1 million New Zealand dollars was equivalent to U.S. $823,000.
The department head recommended the New Zealand government grant Thiel citizenship based on “public interest due to exceptional circumstances.”
Thiel had contended “being a New Zealand citizen would enable him to represent the country on the international stage and give him greater confidence in mobilizing New Zealand's talented entrepreneurs,” the summary of his application read. “It would give him great pride to let it be known that he is a New Zealand citizen.”
Furthermore, his attorney said that Thiel would “embrace and contribute to the life, history and culture of New Zealand.”
Thiel, who had visited New Zealand only four times, according to the documents, was awarded New Zealand citizenship in a private ceremony at the consulate in Los Angeles in August 2011 — a highly unusual arrangement.
However, despite being granted citizenship more than five years ago, Thiel’s status as a New Zealander only came to light last month, when the New Zealand Herald found out.
Thiel bought a $10 million, 500-acre block of lakefront land in Wanaka, one of the most sought-after spots in New Zealand's South Island.
Foreigners must get government approval before buying such sensitive pieces of land, and the Herald had asked authorities if Thiel, believed only to have permanent residency, had been granted this permission. It turned out that because he was a citizen, he didn't need it.
Prime Minister Bill English has defended the decision to grant the billionaire a passport, saying “a little bit of flexibility” was useful when it came to citizenship laws. “New Zealand is a better place with Mr Thiel as a citizen,” he said.
But opposition politicians like Lees-Galloway have sharply criticized the decision and are demanding a full review. “What did New Zealand get out of this?” he told The Washington Post. “His two main investments were made before he became a citizen and there’s no evidence that he’s been active in terms of investment or philanthropy since.”
Toby Manhire, a columnist for the New Zealand Herald, said that the lack of transparency in the whole process was concerning.
“Crucially, there is no mention in the [Citizenship] act, nor in the Internal Affairs guidelines, of an exception that would explain the PM's reference to special citizen terms for people who ‘come here and invest and get into philanthropy,’” Manhire wrote. “And if there is an exception on that basis, it really should be written down somewhere, publicly and transparently.”
Thiel has already been the subject of a significant amount of controversy in the United States.
He is Trump's most prominent supporter in the overwhelming-liberal Silicon Valley and was a member of his transition team. Although he has not been given a formal role in the Trump administration, Thiel has been a vocal supporter of the president's first steps, including his controversial travel ban on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Last year he funded a successful lawsuit against Gawker Media, which led to the company's bankruptcy and the closure of Gawker.com, a move that sparked concerns about freedom of the press.